The Boy at the Top of the Mountain by John Boyne
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The day I read The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, I knew I had read something life-changing. The story of Bruno and Shmuel is one I will never forget. It is possible that this new book by John Boyne just might be of the same calibre.
Pierrot is a young Parisian boy who lives with his parents in a time of great upheaval. Pierrot’s father is a WWI returned serviceman with symptoms of what we would now recognise as PTSD. After his father’s suicide, Pierrot’s mother becomes gravely ill and before he really understands what is happening, seven year old Pierrot is living in an orphanage. Fortunately he is not there long as his paternal aunt, whom he has never met, arranges for him to live with her. Aunt Beatrix is the housekeeper in a house on an Austrian mountain top. The staff treat the owner of the house, Herr Hitler, with the utmost fear and respect. Pierrot has arrived at the Berghof.
Straight away, life changes for Pierrot. His aunt buys him Austrian clothes, and tells him from now on he will be called “Pieter”. She tells him it is for his own safety and he must not ever mention his best friend from Paris, Anshel Bronstein. Beatrix and the chauffeur, Ernst, tell Pieter that his life depends on not mentioning his old life in France at all.
It is interesting that Boyne chose the name Pierrot for this child protagonist, as Pierrot is a stock theatre character known as ‘the sad clown’. Pieter has to dress up and pretend to be someone else, as Pierrot the clown does, and Pieter must charm and win over Herr Hitler in order to be allowed to stay, just as Pierrot dressed up and acted the fool to win over Columbine.
Day by day, month by month, Pieter becomes part of life at the Berghof. He greatly admires Herr Hitler, his benefactor, and he joins the Hitler Youth to honour him. His aunt can see he is changing, becoming a model Hitlerjugend, and she is powerless to stop it. Forced to disown his Jewish friend Anshel (left behind in Paris), and abandon his true heritage, Pieter is determined to fit in and be accepted by Hitler as a “model citizen” of the Reich. Pieter begins to watch the staff at the Berghof, including his aunt and Ernst, and he becomes someone they are fearful of. Buoyed by this feeling of power over others, Pieter tries to impress a girl from school, Katarina, with stories of his life at the Berghof, but she is unmoved.
As Pieter becomes more and more entrenched in life at the Berghof, he becomes closer and closer to Hitler and drawn away from Aunt Beatrix. When he overhears Beatrix and Ernst talking about “stopping” the Fuhrer, Pieter is on high alert. At the staff Christmas Eve party, Pieter stops Hitler eating a piece of stollen poisoned by Ernst and Beatrix and their fate, and his, is sealed. On Christmas morning, as they are shot as traitors, Pieter tells himself, “she was a traitor, just like Ernst, and traitors must be punished.” His transformation is complete. Pierrot the French boy is now Pieter the Nazi.
The rest of the novel is an examination of a descent into evil. It is difficult to feel sympathy for Pieter as he throws his power around, hurting many other people in the process, but it is important to remember he is a product of his environment and his need to belong and feel accepted. These are powerful needs and emotions and this novel demonstrates how they can control and alter one’s life forever.
If The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a study of how one man’s insanity can destroy an entire culture, The Boy at the Top of the Mountain is a study of how one culture’s complicity can destroy one young man. Equally as powerful, and a wonderful companion to his first novel, The Boy at the Top of the Mountain is an intense experience. I thought about this book for days after I had finished it, especially the ending (not revealed here because of my no-spoiler policy), and I still can’t completely let it go.
An absolute must-read. For ages 14 and up.